Rahsaan Roland Kirk: A Standing Eight
These two CD's include the last three albums recorded by this most extraordinary of extraordinary musicians: The Return of the 5000 lb. Man, Kirkatron, and Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real. They're particularly poignant because of the circumstances in which they appeared: 5000 lb. Man landed in the can only a short time before Kirk's debilitating stroke; Kirkatron was assembled from outtakes and soundchecks during his recovery; and Boogie-Woogie was heroically recorded by a half-paralyzed Kirk who was determined to go out unbowed. Under these circumstances it's difficult at times to evaluate the music: the last two records are not vintage Kirk, (although they both have their moments), but they can't be separated from the way they came to be. And certainly second-line Kirk is head and shoulders above a good deal of first-line material being put out these days.
So 5000 lb. Man is the strongest of these three LP's, and it's as heavy as its title. Kirk plays his reeds roughly throughout, leaning lovingly toward his r&b roots and adding in heaping helpings of declamatory archness and sidelong romanticism. Like the LP's collected on 32's previous collection, Aces Back to Back, this one starts off with spoken (somewhat hectoring) introduction, this one by a woman explaining that a "Eulipion" is a "journey agent." If Rahsaan Roland Kirk can be called anything, "journey agent" is apt, for this record and the other two take us on his characteristic well-plotted and far-reaching journeys: into genres forgotten and familiar songs transmuted. On this "Theme for the Eulipions" and throughout this album his playing is brawny, with a soft center: on "I'll Be Seeing You" he achieves an aching tenderness. He towers so high over his sidemen that it's as if he's playing in a different galaxy. But this album can't be classified as essential Kirk for the cloying, dated vocals on "There Will Never Be Another You" and, appallingly, John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," which also gets a vocal treatment, is a bit better, but on the whole the vocals on this album show the hazard of Kirk's famous eclecticism: who but a Lawrence Welk or Hi-Lo's fan would appreciate this stuff, and how many Welkians jam to Rahsaan?
Kirkatron is, by its very nature, even more of a mixed bag. There are some unqualified gems: on "J. Griff's Blues" the master circular-breathes over a standard blues form before an enthusiastic crowd. His technique is all the more astonishing for his high level of lyricism and architectonic coherence: this is a track for the All-Time Best-Of-The-Best. Otherwise the album suffers from too many anonymous Seventies funk arrangements; probably if Rahsaan had been able to get this one exactly the way he wanted it it might have been been more exploratory; still, we get a "Bagpipe Melody" (but no bagpipes, just a few horns at once!), a funky "Night in Tunisia" ably played by the Man, and a cloying-vocal "Bright Moments" (probably left over from the 5000 lb. sessions. All in all it's a bit uneven, with some highs as high as anyone could want, and some lows to match.
Then comes the stricken Kirk's last effort. Where he once towered over his backgrounds, now he shares center-stage with others. But there is nothing pathetic here. His playing is more understated than it had been, (with just a bit of a flutter on "I Loves You Porgy" only), but he displays a Milesian keenness of placement and keeps the mood high throughout. As befits the title, most of this album is blues and boogie-woogie (the title track is just what it says: a boogie-woogie performed with strings), with Kirk investing old forms with new vitality just like in the old days. Knowing that he was playing with just one hand makes this one of the most extraordinary efforts by a man for whom the extraordinary was commonplace, but it holds up well on its own merits also. On "In a Mellow Tone" his solo murmurs and ruminates; he sings "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" with delightful verve; his judgment is peremptory on "Watergate Blues."
Three last masterworks: if it's not the best Kirk, at least it's some of the best music. We have 32 Jazz and Joel Dorn to thank that this music can still be heard. Hear it.